How Orbán’s views on Israel’s and Ukraine’s right to self defence differ

October 16. 2023. – 02:19 PM

How Orbán’s views on Israel’s and Ukraine’s right to self defence differ
In the photo published by the PM's Press Office, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is seen at the meeting of the Defence Council in the Carmelite Monastery on 8 June 2023, which he convened due to the escalation in the Russian-Ukrainian war – Photo by Zoltán Fischer / Press Office of the Prime Minister / MTI


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In a radio interview on Friday, in addition to his usual bashing of the European Union, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that Israel had the right to defend itself in the wake of a terrorist attack. He put it precisely as follows: "You know, when a country is attacked by terrorists, then its leaders, in this case Prime Minister Netanyahu, are obviously thinking that they have a responsibility towards their people to do everything to ensure that this doesn't happen again. And, indeed, we must also say that if someone is the victim of a terrorist attack, they have the right to take steps to ensure that it doesn't happen again, that their citizens don't fall victim to acts of terrorism again."

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, who condemned the bloody attacks carried out by Hamas in a statement just a few hours after the violence started, echoed Orbán's sentiment. “We condemn this brutal attack in the strongest possible terms, we recognise Israel's right to self-defence and we express our sincere condolences to the Government of Israel and to the Israeli people for their losses. I have assured my Israeli counterpart of Hungary's support and sympathy.”

It is also worth recalling what Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office Gergely Gulyás said at the International Pro-Israel Conference last Monday. “The first thing we can wish for Israel in this situation is that it regains full control of the territory of the State of Israel as soon as possible, and that it also establishes the security guarantees necessary to ensure that such a beastly attack never happens again.”

War and terror

It is worth comparing the above remarks with how the Prime Minister and the government communicated when Russia attacked Ukraine last February. Was it so clear to Orbán then too that an attacked country has the right to defend itself? Did he talk about it being on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's mind that he had to do everything in his power to prevent his own people ever being attacked again? Did the Hungarian government also wish that Ukraine would regain full control of its territory?

Obviously, there is no one-to-one comparison between the situation in Israel and the war in Ukraine. The reasons that led to the conflict are different, the balance of power is different and the nature of the hostilities is different. Ukraine was the target of a military offensive by another state, with the goal of gaining territory, which is clearly a war. Israel is being attacked by Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, which lacks statehood and which has been declared a terrorist organisation by both the US and the EU.

People are dying in both conflicts. The Russian army initially attacked the Ukrainian army and military targets, but since the very first month of the war, scores of Ukrainian civilians have been killed, have lost their homes and have been forced to flee. In addition to military targets, Hamas also deliberately attacked civilians living near the Gaza border last week, carrying out massacres and taking scores of civilian hostages.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Israel launched air strikes against Gazan targets. The death toll on both sides is now well over a thousand, with most of the casualties being civilians. A further question, in light of the expected Israeli offensive, is what will happen to the Gaza Strip and the more than 2 million Palestinians inhabiting the area, whose living conditions have already been hellish before all this happened.

Ukraine is also to blame for the war, but it does have the right to defend itself

In this article, we will focus solely on how members of the Hungarian government spoke about Russia's aggression on Ukraine when it first began and in the nearly year and a half since, and how this differs from the way they have communicated about Israel in recent days. We are not suggesting that the government has denied Ukraine's right to self-defence, but it is also clear from their statements that there has been much less clarity on the question of responsibility or peace.

If we take a look at Viktor Orbán's Facebook page, we can see that on the day the war in Ukraine broke out, he mainly stressed that Hungary must stay out of the war, that Hungary must not allow itself to be dragged into the war, and that the security of the Hungarian people is the most important. Other members of the Hungarian government expressed similar thoughts with very little emphasis placed on Hungary condemning the Russian aggression against Ukraine and standing up for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the attacked country (although even Orbán mentions this in a video from 24 February of last year).

And in the weeks following the outbreak of the war, in preparation for the parliamentary elections in April, the statements from Orbán and members of the government were dominated by the well-known messages stressing the importance of peace and security (see cuts in utility costs and securing gas supplies), with the addition that the left wants war and would send weapons and soldiers to Ukraine. This evolved into the slogan "pro-war opposition/left", which has been used ever since by Fidesz politicians and government propaganda alike.

It is also true that in a radio interview given in June last year, Orbán used a similar phrase to the one he is using now with regard to Israel, namely that Ukraine has the right to defend itself. He also said that if a government decides to fight, there is no contesting their right to do so, even if their chances are not good according to bookmakers. However, this is greatly overshadowed by the fact that earlier, for example in his speech after his election victory last year, the Prime Minister listed the Ukrainian President among his opponents who are aligned with the Hungarian opposition. And in his infamous Tusványos speech of 2022, notorious for his statements on mixed race, he essentially blamed Ukraine for the outbreak of the war.

“Of course, everyone knows that it was Russia that attacked Ukraine. That is what happened. Now, let's take a look at what the reason was! (...) The Russians made a very clear security demand, and in a move rarely seen in diplomacy, they even put it in writing and sent it to the Americans and to NATO. (...) The West rejected this offer and even refused to negotiate about it (...) And as a consequence of this rejection, the Russians are now seeking to enforce their security requirements which they had previously sought to obtain through negotiation, by military means.”

The relativisation of the Russian aggressor's responsibility is also a recurrent element in the Hungarian government's communication. This is also reflected in Orbán's regular assertion that it is now up to the United States whether there will be peace talks. He made this point, for example, at his international press conference last December.

So far, nothing similar has been mentioned in relation to Israel. No one in the Hungarian government is bringing up the responsibility of Israel as the attacked party in this complex conflict. The Hungarian position is that Hamas is clearly to blame for the current situation. At Orbán's intervention, the police immediately banned the demonstration said to be pro-Palestinian which had been planned for last Friday.

On the war going on in Hungary's neighbouring country, Orbán himself has repeatedly said that Ukraine cannot win against Russia, which is in stark contrast to what Hungary's allies have been saying about the outcome of the war. It is perhaps understandable that no one is saying anything similar about Israel, given that one of the most powerful armies of the world is preparing to invade the Gaza Strip.

Hungary and Ukraine were not on good terms before the war either, while Israel is led by Orbán's ally

It's not simply that Orbán doesn't believe Ukraine can win. The Hungarian government is regularly accused of being pro-Russian both at home and abroad, but they have made no secret of why they haven't distanced themselves from Vladimir Putin's regime after the invasion of Ukraine, even though the Russian army has been proven to have massacred civilians in Bucha. The argument is usually the country's dependence on energy, which is also how Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó explained their foreign policy towards Russia on Dutch public television.

At the same time, government propaganda is practically spreading the Russian narrative in Hungary: they are scaring people with the threat of an imminent third world war and are regularly vilifying the Ukrainian president, while Fidesz pundits are talking very openly about cheering for Russia. It is hard to imagine that all this is done without the government's approval in the Fidesz media empire, which includes hundreds of newspapers.

One could go on and on about the numerous government moves and utterances that have caused tension between Hungary and war-torn Ukraine. For example, the Hungarian government has not allowed arms to be shipped directly from its territory to Ukraine, but it has allowed such shipments to pass through into other countries. Most recently, the Orbán government used the arms shipments issue as a bargaining chip: it refused to negotiate EU funding for new arms shipments to Ukraine until Kyiv removed Hungary's OTP Bank from the list of companies supporting the war.

A recurring element in the Hungarian government's argument is that, in addition to the country’s dependence on Russian energy, these particular steps are justified by Hungary’s proximity to the conflict and the protection of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine. Relations between the two countries were not particularly good before the Russian invasion either. It was in fact precisely the situation of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine that sparked a conflict, so the diplomatic friction we have recently seen is not surprising.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make a press statement after their meeting in Jerusalem on 19 July 2018 – Photo: Szilárd Koszticsák / MTVI
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make a press statement after their meeting in Jerusalem on 19 July 2018 – Photo: Szilárd Koszticsák / MTVI

Hungary has been hampering Ukraine's integration with the West since 2017, because the Hungarian government believes that the Ukrainian education law adopted that year and the language law adopted two years later discriminate against the ethnic Hungarian minority living in Ukraine. It is in response to this that Hungary has blocked dialogue at the highest level between Ukraine and NATO in recent years. While this has not prevented rapprochement, it has definitely slowed it down.

However, the government has a very good relationship with Israel, and more specifically with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu was the first to congratulate Orbán after his election victory last year, and Orbán was equally pleased when Netanyahu was re-elected as Israel's prime minister in December.

The importance of peace

In the context of the ongoing conflict in Israel, Orbán once again had the chance to talk about something he loves to talk about: peace. In a radio interview on Friday, he said that it is in times like these that we really see the importance of peace and stability in our world, and that political leaders must do everything to preserve it. Regarding Israel, Orbán said that the war on terrorism must be prevented from turning into an Arab-Israeli war between states, because the effects of such a conflict would be felt in Hungary too.

He did not elaborate on what this would require. The issue of peace is also regularly raised in the Hungarian government's communication on Ukraine, but even a year and a half after the beginning of the Russian aggression, it is not clear how Orbán and his party envisage peace in Ukraine. And under what conditions the Russian-Ukrainian war ends is far from being an unimportant question: will Crimea, which was annexed in 2014, be returned to Ukraine, or will the Russians withdraw only from the territories they currently occupy, which is about 20 percent of Ukraine's total territory? The immediate ceasefire proposed by Orbán would imply that these too would remain under Russian control.

Based on Gergely Gulyás's statement, there is no question that Tel Aviv must regain control of the entire territory of the State of Israel. But even this will not necessarily bring about the much-desired peace: a protracted guerrilla war between one of the world's most modern armies and Hamas is likely to ensue, which Israel will most likely win, but even then there is no telling what they will do with the Gaza Strip.

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